Bali is an island, which throughout the ages has been influenced by many other cultures. While Bali’s religious root stems from animism and ancestral worship, Hindu mythology and Buddhism have been major influences. However, regardless of what they were practicing, one factor has always remained constant: “Life in Bali is governed by religion” . Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the art of mask making derived as a religious act, rather than a quest to create aesthetic beauty. Masks thus give form to godly and chthonic forces and are used in theatrical performances to teach adaptations of Indian Sanskrit Texts . In addition, theatrical mask dances are used for, “planting and harvest celebrations and at times of transition in the lives of individuals and communities”. Mask dances, such as Topeng, also discuss politics of the past and present, and morals. I will further discuss the masked dances in another section of this article.

Theatre in Bali, Indonesia is more than a distinguished discipline; it is a performance entwined with every day life. Theatre, like all art, is a part of the religion and culture in Bali; thus all Balinese participate in art in some way. Furthermore, music, dance, costumes, and drama are not separate entities, but rather pieces of Balinese Theatre that rely on each other to achieve their ultimate purpose: Creating unity and harmony between the three worlds. In this article, I am going to discuss Balinese masks and the religious-socio-cultural role they play in Balinese Theatre.

Balinese Beliefs & Mythology

The Bali Hindu religion, the foundation of the ordered Balinese society, pervades every aspect of life. Bali Hinduism, which has root in Indian Hinduism and in Buddhism, adopted the animistic traditions of the indigenes, who inhibited the island around the first millennium BC. This influence strengthened the belief that the gods and goddesses are present in all things. Every element of nature, therefore, possesses its own power, which reflects the power of the gods. A rock, tree, dagger, or woven cloth is a potential home for spirits whose energy can be directed for good or evil. However, even art shop masks, those wood masks made in an unconsecrated assembly-line manner to be sold to tourist, have been known to become possessed. A former director of Bali’s Art Center has a concise explanation: “If you make an attractive home, someone will want to live in it.” A desirable proposition

According to Bali Hinduism, for every positive principle or constructive force there is an equally powerful destructive forces. These are sometimes referred to as forces of the right (high) and forces of the left (low). The two elements ideally coexist in balance so that neither assumes too much power. Maintaining this precarious equilibrium is a constant preoccupation for the Balinese, who prepare daily offerings to satiate the spirits and keep them under control as well as plead for blessings.

Offerings, or banten, vary according to the nature of the ceremony and whether they are intended for a high or low spirit. They may consist of combination of incense, flowers, old Chinese coins, fabric, betel nuts, arak (liquor), holy water, palm-leaf decoration, and food. The food is not actually meant to be eaten by the gods but functions as means by which the people give back what rightfully belongs to the spirits. The most significant moment in the life of offering is its dedication. After that, what happens to it is important. Consequently, offerings to low spirit, which are left on the ground, are usually scavenged by chickens or dogs. The larger offerings to high spirits are taken back to the family home after residing for a while at the temple, and the edible parts are then consumed by family members.

Balinese temples, embellished with a decorative display of stones carvings, consist of breezy, open air courtyards, surrounded by a wall and entered through a large split gate. Once inside the entrance is a free standing wall (aling-aling). Beyond the wall is a large, open area with many small shrines of various sizes, each dedicated to a different god or goddess. At temple festivals, the normally somber shrines are highly decorated, and worshippers come to pray and dedicate their offerings, then retire to talk with friends. A festival is a highly social occasion, culminating in a live performance of mask dance or puppets presented for all to enjoy-local villagers and guests as well as the spirits of visiting deities and ancestors, and even an occasional tourists.

The dance and masks dramas that are performed at the temples as part of the odalan are considered important offerings to the god and goddess. The deities would be hesitant to attend any birthday celebration where there is no entertainment. A mask dancer makes an offering of his skills each time he performs, in some cases serving in a capacity similar o a priest. Wali dances, those permitted to occur in the inner sanctum of the temple complex, are directed toward the deified ancestors, who are honored guests, and tend to be involved with spirits rather than plot, character, or story.

Balinese Mask Performance

Masks performances have been important rituals on the Indonesian island of Bali for over a thousand years. Although many ancients societies used wooden masks to celebrate their religions, Bali is one of the few places where the ritual art has never disappeared and is, in fact, thriving. Wood carvers are producing more beautiful and more elaborate wood mask than ever, and thousands of people worldwide collect these compelling objects. The proliferation of Balinese artists and performance groups indicates that the tiny island is undergoing a cultural renaissance, the centerpiece of which is the tapel-the beautiful Balinese masks.

Masks may represent gods, animals, demons, or humans and can be whole masks or half masks depending on the dance they are used for. Masks can also be sacred or non-sacred depending on their purpose and preparation. Because the mystical theatre in Bali has captured the attention of so many foreigners to the land, non-sacred masks are made abundantly for sale. However, the best of the mask carvers have not abandoned their calling to create the sacred, consecrated masks when they have a “feeling” to do so.

The Balinese classify the masks of heroes, clowns, and low spirits according to their qualities. The dashing heroes (often incarnation of gods), beautiful queens, and virtuous kings are describe as halus, a Balinese word meaning “sweet,” “gentle,” and “refined.” Low spirits, animals, and brutish types, including antagonist kings, are referred to as keras, or “strong,” “rough,” and “forceful.” There are certain distinctions in between, which usually encompass the clowns and servants.

The three types of wood masks used in these dramas depict humans, animals, and demons. Human-looking masks can be full face or three-quarter face (extending to the upper lip), or can have a movable jaw. They are expected to resemble certain character types rather than specific people. Heroes and heroines are stereotypically handsome, with refined features matched b the movements of the dancers. The coarser a character is, he more exaggerated the features are: eyes bulge, mouths and noses thicken, and teeth become fangs. Color is also employed to reveal character of mask.

Animal masks are mythological rather than realistic. Conscious of the distinction between humans and animal, the Balinese emphasize the difference by designing animal wood masks that seem closely related to demons, even for magically powerful and god-related animals like the heroic and delightful Hanuman, the white monkey of the Ramayana epic. Birds, cows, and even frogs have gaping mouths and horrendous protruding fangs. Protuberant eyes with black pupils stare from golden irises in masks that can hardly be called attractive despite elaborate crowns and earrings.

Perhaps the most exciting wood masks are those of the witches and what are called low spirits. The low spirits, who can be troublesome if no appeased, are sometimes describe by Westeners as demons. This is inaccurate, since low spirits have power to perform good deads and provide protection. The Balinese do not separate the supernatural from the natural. The spirit world is a living force that must be recognize and appeased through rituals and offerings. Because the Balinese grant the masks powers that befit their roles and society, the masks of witches and low spirits are the largest and most grotesque of all traditional masks. The imposing wigs on most of these wood masks magnify the head and stature of the wearer. A basket device attached inside the construction holds it to the wearer’s head. Since the arrangement is relatively unstable, dancers often steady their unwieldy wood masks while they perform.

In some parts of Bali, trance is a frequent part of ritual; elsewhere, it is nonexistent. In Calonarang and Barong mask dramas, trance is common. The subject matter of these dramas is witchcraft, the supernatural, and the battle of positive and negative forces. The major characters, Durga, the Goddess of Death as Rangda, and Barong Ket, Lord of the Jungle, battle with every ounce of magical power they can harness, occasionally assisted by armies.

Kerambitan in southwest Bali is one of the areas known for highly active spirits and the frequencies of trance possession. A dancer who once worked as director of Bali’s Art Center tells a story about the Rangda and Barong masks of Kerambitan, his village: “Our priest had a dream that Rangda and Barong masks must be part of the village temple, so we had them created in the prescribed manner. Once they were brought to their temple home, they began fighting with each other while they were inside their baskets. They created so much noise and tension that the masks had to be separated.” Although the Rangda mask was moved to another temple, the two mask still fought and the Rangda mask was moved to another village. On the mask’s birthday, the day they were both consecrated, they had to be united in the temple again. Rangda was brought from the other village, displayed in the ceremony, and then immediately put away.

Balinese Mask With Supernatural Energy

Masks are regarded as powerful receptacles for wandering spirits. A wooden mask filled with divine energy becomes tenget (metaphysically charged). Made from a particular wood that is cut at specific times, tenget masks are generally associated with a certain number of rituals. Wooden masks in a tenget state may lose some of their special energy over time and need to be “recharged” in a special ceremony Initiations of renewed or new masks, called pasupati, can involve as many as ten days of feasting, performances of dance and Wayang Kulit (shadow puppets), cockfights, and processions. A high priest is called to officiate the exact moment when the “body” of the wood mask separates from the “head” (spirit) and the god inhabiting the wood mask is “sent home”. After the newly vitalized mask is returned to the temple, another set of ceremonies is held to invite the spirit back to the wood mask. The powerful mask of Durga, Goddess of Death and Black magic, and sometimes called Rangda is occasionally tested to see if its power is still burning. If explosions of fire come from the eyes, ears, head, nose, or mouth of the mask, it is considered sakti (sacred or powerful). It is placed in the village cemetery in the middle of the night during an especially auspicious time called Kanjeng Kliwon Pamelastali, a powerful time when spirits are present and must be acknowledge with offerings.

Sacred wood masks are never displayed on walls as works of art as in Western homes, but are kept in simple fabric bags with drawstring tops. The color of the bag is important-whether yellow, white, or black-and-white checked-because color symbolism affects the spirit of the wood masks. Once encased in the bags, the wood masks are placed in baskets, which in turn are stored within the temple complex. If a wood mask belongs to an individual, it will probably be kept inside the family temple. Sacred wood masks are only displayed for their birthdays, which will be apart of an odalan, or temple festival. Dancers unveil their wood masks when commissioned to perform at an odalan. Only rarely is a wood mask uncovered in order to be reconditioned: the paint refreshed, worm holes filled, and gold leaf touched up. This is never done casually, but in conjunction with elaborate rituals.

Masks made from the same tree are felt to have family ties. When a tree produce a knot like growth, it is called beling, which means “pregnant.” Care is taken not to damage the tree, and when the cut is made, a special ceremony is held to appease the spirits of the tree. If these rituals are not followed, a spiritually powerful tree could use its energy to cause destruction. In Singapudu village, home of two Bali’s most renowned woodcarvers, wood is no longer taken from an especially tenget tree that grows at the edge of the village. Two priests performed the requisite ceremonies before removing wood, but within a week both died of mysterious causes.


Through this brief examination of Balinese Masked Performances, it becomes clear that the elements of theatre, the story, the masks, the performance, are all special and require much preparation. Balinese masks that are used in religious ceremonies have great concentrations of power and, therefore, must be treated very carefully. Woodcarving masks used in traditional dance and drama performances, even if not sacred, also must not be handled casually

It helps to understand that to the Balinese, there is not the same differentiation that we in the West make between animate and inanimate objects. Everything contains spirit. When you consider that some of the woodcarving masks represent evil spirits, such as Rangda, queen of the witches, or that some represent gods or mythical protectors, such as the Barong, it is a big responsibility to wear these woodcarving masks and blend with these powers. This is usually done either in ceremonies or as part of acting out the great dramas that derive mostly from ancient Hindu epics. In Bali, it is customary that the dramas will end with neither side “winning” out over the other – instead, there is a restoration of the harmony between the good and evil forces, which, according to Balinese belief, must be kept in balance.

When someone from the West puts on a mask, he’s usually pretending to be someone else. But in Bali when someone puts on mask, especially a sacred mask, he becomes someone else. The mask has a life force – a spiritual magic. A sacred mask is considered to be literally alive, and when the performer puts it on, the mask’s power also enters his body. The Balinese world is filled with magical power. Objects that we as westerners would normally consider to be devoid of the ability to exert influence on other objects or people to them may possess a mystical force.

By examining the craftsmanship of these masks, it is crystalline why Bali is famed for its beautiful masks and masked dance performance. To see a various Wood Carving Mask & Sculpture from Bali, please visit : []

Source by Alexander Halim

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